Emergency response via wifi proposed to solve a wicked problem

Concern that tourists and travellers are not receiving local, up to date emergency information has sparked the idea that won the inaugural Natural Hazards Research Australia Disaster Challenge Final in Brisbane.

Dr Kamarah Pooley and Mark Owens are behind the winning concept, which addresses what Natural Hazards Research (NHRA) describes as “a wicked problem” in the pantheon of problems caused by climate change.

Pooley and Owens proposed using Wi-Fi captive portals to reach tourists and tourism workers with disaster preparation and prevention information.

According to Pooley, an early-career researcher from Fire and Rescue New South Wales, the idea focuses on positive and practical information that people can use while on holiday to stay safe from floods, bushfires, cyclones and other natural hazards.

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NSW Fire and Rescue Senior firefighter Dr Kamara Pooley

The concept outlines a short video with tips about how to access emergency information and what to do if disaster strikes – customised to the local area – which would play before tourists access Wi-Fi services at accommodation or eateries.
“Accessing free Wi-Fi is essential for holiday makers and our approach is another way to reach people who are hard to reach through current communication channels,” said Owens, an early-career researcher from the Country Fire Authority in Victoria.

“Wi-Fi portals are a way that holiday makers can receive the vital information they need to make informed decisions during a natural hazard.”
As NHRA CEO Andrew Gissing explained, “emergency management is full of wicked problems and new thinking is our way forward. We cannot keep doing things the same way and expecting a different result.”

Pooley told Cosmos “Existing sources of disaster information build resilience in communities through targeted programs, resources and messages that are designed for defined, static populations.

“While existing efforts are effective at reducing the risk and consequences of disasters for permanent residents and workers, there is little evidence to suggest that these approaches are applicable to transient communities.

“Tourists have unstructured routines, making them difficult to access in a systematic way. Travellers are inherently difficult to reach. This is especially concerning when travellers are from overseas and are not aware of any of the usual sources of information, such as which radio stations to listen to, social media accounts to follow, or mobile applications to download.”

So why would tourists access the emergency response content?

“While our idea does not require tourists and tourism workers to access a Wi-Fi network, it taps into the large-scale adoption of wireless services and the everyday behaviours of an increasing tech savvy population to reach people who are on the move.

“Australia has embraced wireless services and Wi-Fi is now considered an integral part of public infrastructure. Free Wi-Fi is increasingly rolling out, particularly in places frequented by tourists and tourism workers, such as accommodation, information centres, cafes, restaurants, parks, airports, and on airlines and buses.

“Captive portals are web pages that users must view and interact with before accessing a Wi-Fi network. Any tourist or tourism worker who attempts to access a Wi-Fi network will have to watch a disaster preparedness video tailored to that time and place. After they have viewed the video, they will be provided with access to the Wi-Fi network.

“Travellers are heavy consumers of wireless services. By tapping into Wi-Fi, we can deliver systematic disaster preparedness information to a large proportion and wide variety of travellers.”

Emergency agencies and local media and the ABC have spent fifteen years trying to ensure they can deliver emergency information to local communities. Pooley says travellers require different messaging to permanent residents.

“Many tourists are new to the local area and are unaware of the temporal and place-based factors influencing risk. They do not have accurate perceptions of risk and how disasters may interact with that season or place. They generally do not know what to do when a disaster occurs in that context. As a result, travellers need tailored information.

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NSW Fire and Rescue Senior Fire Fighter, Dr Kamara Pooley

“For example, while most locals know the local area, travellers often do not. We recommend that travellers download an offline map of the local area so that, in the event of a disaster and loss of telecommunication services, they have access to a map that will help them leave an area that is unsafe.  

“While most locals will know to listen to their local ABC radio, scroll through local emergency services social media pages, and download certain mobile applications such as the NSW RFS’ Fires Near Me app, travellers will not, especially if they are from overseas.

“Our messaging will show travellers what apps to download and which channels to follow. During the 2019-2020 bushfire crisis, tens of thousands of travellers rushed to petrol stations and supermarkets, emptying local towns of fuel and food.

“Our messaging encourages travellers to keep their fuel tank full, carry extra food and water, and leave early to avoid placing additional pressure on local communities and critical infrastructure.

These are just a few examples of the additional information tourists and tourism workers need to adequately prepare for disasters. 

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Natural Hazards Research Australia will now work with Poole and Owens to develop their concept, which is explained in this short video.

Second place in the Disaster Challenge went to Griffith University postgraduate students Jane Toner, Sheridan Keegan, Ahmed Qasim, Lynn Lue-Kopman, Yunjin Wang and Manori Dissanayaka, alongside Cristina Hernandez-Santin from RMIT University.

Their pitch was a disaster-activated information hub that harnessed the value of creative place-making and art to bring communities together and provide emergency information to tourists, titled Beacons of Hope.
Third place was awarded to Jyoti Khatri K C and Mohammed Alqahtani, Queensland University of Technology PhD students, who drew on their personal experience of the 2022 Queensland floods to propose ways to harness community connections with culturally and linguistically diverse communities to increase emergency preparedness amongst migrant communities, whose knowledge of potential natural hazards in Australia may be low. The next Disaster Challenge will take place in 2023

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